Perception of Climate Change - Sea Level Rise Prototype

According to the NOAA, FEMA and other US environmental agencies, sea level rise in NYC is predicted to reach at least 8 inches by 2050 (just shy of 30 years away). The so called 1% estimate, the worst case scenario, predicts up to 30 inches of sea level rise - a widely accepted catastrophic yet realistic prediction. In the NYC area in specific, this means large areas of Downtown, the West Side and Greenpoint as well as Jersey City’s waterfront will be flooded.

I was shocked to see such unsettling and bleakly certain predictions and I am unable to understand how we, as people of the world, residents of New York and HUMANS WHO WILL LIVE THROUGH THIS DISASTROUS FLOOD, fail to act in a more determined, organized and proactive fashion.

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See Sea Level Rise Prediction Visualizations:

Cities We Could Lose to the Sea

Flood Map of NYC Showing a 10 ft NYC

Sea Level Rise Viewer

Addressing Climate Change Inaction

Research I reviewed on the perception of climate change pointed to abstract representations and generalized climate change information being a core cause for the lack of persisting internalization of the risk and a reduced willingness to act on climate change amongst many demographics in the US. The sense of detachment from the problem (when presented with images of melting ice caps and natural disaster abroad) and its vast scale often lead to a feeling of powerlessness, resulting in suppression and avoidance of the problem.

This tied to a very interesting point mentioned in a paper studying awe as a scientific emotion. It pointed out that “Because accommodation can be difficult or unsuccessful, awe straddles the border between positive and negative—provoking a sense of wonder, but also one of powerlessness and uncertainty.” Further it stated “Recent experimental work suggests that inducing a sense of awe can decrease tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity in the environment, driving individuals to reconcile that uncertainty by means of compensatory control, with religious notions of supernatural control offering one avenue for doing so.”

This made a lot of sense - as being presented with the overwhelmingly catastrophic results of global warming be a great motivator, but also leave one feeling paralyzed in face of the vast scale of the problem and choose a path of avoidance or ignorance, even if doing so subliminally. The research on climate change perception found that, on average, delivering localized information about climate change reduced perceived psychological distance, had a positive impact on the subject’s willingness to act and sustaining a long term connection with the issue. It seems to me that by localizing the threat the viewer’s reaction is one not only of awe but of horror, unnerving the self-boundary and forcing a defensive reaction - in which case ignorance is not an option.

Project Development Framework

These learnings inspired me to build a basic prototypal framework for engaging with public of these works, with which I hope to evaluate different ideas and methods of introduction, education and call for action. The following are the design considerations:

1. Introduction

The introduction to a particular discussion, piece of information or a critical perspective must be subtle, simplified, even cunning, and leverage the audience’s emotion and experience of either awe, horror or menace. The self-boundary shifting nature of these sensations seems to be a powerful gateway to harnessing audience attention and triggering a response of either wonder or defense - a self-expanding emotion that opens the viewer’s mind and awareness beyond their self, and promotes consideration of their environment and society.

2. Localization

It’s been shown that clear and concrete information, that is localized in time and space to the specific audience targeted, has more impact than abstract ideas and remote depictions of change, as catastrophic as it may be. Within our current political climate, immediate implications are some, if not the only, means of penetrating a top-down onslaught of dismissive propaganda that is aimed at maintaining political and capital interest above the environmental future not only of polar bears, but of all of citizens of this country.

3. Immersion / Impression

In an effort to drive engagement and present concrete information that could hopefully lead to increased public action, project should immerse the viewer in the presented reality/state/information in a way that goes beyond abstracted artistic depictions.

How can the realities of climate change be made visceral and perceivable to their true extent? how can this tactic be used to pierce through the hard shell of political propaganda, immediate self-interest and general apathy?

Awe, menace and horror should be fully leveraged at this stage to trigger a need for accommodation of this troubling (and frequently suppressed) information in a way that defines a new schema with which to consider climate change as a pressing, significant part of current affairs.

4. Call for Action(?)

The grand hope of this framework is to facilitate building socially engaged art projects that engage audiences deeply and force them to reconsider and re-accomodate the issues at hand. If successful, would that make the viewers more prone to action, making it the perfect the time to plug a call for action?

I’m approaching the call for action very carefully as it could easily turn into a “get out of jail free” conscious-clearing escape that defeats the purpose of long term engagement. With climate change, for example, is a one time contribution to a non-profit better than calling for long-term engagement, prompting political action by allowing viewers to message their elected representatives or share the project on social networks to increase its exposure?

Prototype - The Blue Line Project

The Blue Line Project addresses the future impact of rising sea levels, as predicted by the 1% prediction, on residents of New York City. It is the first part of a project aimed at making the catastrophic impact climate change visible in sheltered urban centers. It aims to make visible a future reality in which large parts of downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City will be knee deep in sea water.

Using simple blue tape or blue paint, I will mark future sea levels around Battery Park, South Sea Port and North East Village, Greenepoint, Williamsburg, DUMBO, Jersey City’s waterfront to the level where they are predicted to reach by 2050. I’m focusing on these areas since they are both high-risk waterfront areas but also zones of active gentrification and centers of capital, representing the sheltered class that can “buy its comfort and time” until nature will ironically occupy that land.

The second part of the project, to which viewers will be directed, will be a web-based mobile AR application that will be driven by FEMA sea-rise predictions and will show a location-based animation of the rising water level in the next 30 years overlaid on the phone’s camera view.

This will provide viewers with a hyper-local, visceral view of how climate change relates to them in specific, to their lives, neighborhoods, families and homes - not just remote and abstract ideas that are removed from daily life.

 Sea Level Rise AR App proposal prototype

Sea Level Rise AR App proposal prototype